Sunday, November 14, 2010

Personal Experience in the Mormon Church

I have not posted in a very long time. And I have decided that if I am truly going to go through with my intentions, I must start now. I am going to reflect on my own experience within "the church". As Mormons often say before they are going to speak in sacrament meeting, "Just bear with me. I procrastinated working on this until the last night at midnight".

I come from a typical Mormon background. I have 9 siblings, 6 boys and 4 girls. I can name them all by heart, but due to privacy, I won't here. I am the 8th child in the lineup. We went to church every Sunday, yet most Sundays were spent in some form of anxiety for most of the morning before going. Church sessions in the LDS religion usually run for 3 hours; there is a 50 minute session for what they call "Sacrament Meeting" (most religions call this communion), another 1 hour and 10 minutes for Sunday School, and then 1 hour for men and women to separate into their own groups. For men, it's called Priesthood Meeting, and for women, it's Relief Society. They start this separation when children become "young adults" at 12 years old. But before then, you are in "Primary", and remain integrated. After church, my family and I would come home, usually with less frustration than in the morning, and relax for a few hours before our ritual Sunday dinner. This ritual probably still continues with my family today, as we hadn't broken that tradition for the 19 years that I lived there.

To give a bit of history, the bible indicates that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist at around age 30, meaning he was a full grown adult when he was baptized. When I was 7 years of age, I was being taught by my ward-appointed missionaries to be baptized very soon. (You can probably follow the chain of thought on this on your own. I won't facilitate that here and now.) I can't remember why I had made the decision in the first place. Most of my friends and family had gone through it, so to me, this was normal. I can honestly say that I probably thought it was the right thing to do, mainly because my parents were the ones that I looked to for direction. They dealt the punishment and the rewards. So, in my mind, what they said was very much what god said. And god was a man that was real to them, so he was real to me. (Richard Dawkins makes a sound argument on this, and I would encourage those of you reading this to look it up.) The days came and went, I received toys from the missionaries that taught me. My family was usually in the room, helping to enforce the "knowledge" that was being fed to me. I was indeed baptized at 8 years old.

As a side note, I would like to add that, in elementary school, I was not the most popular child. In fact, I was bullied frequently. The sad part was that most children at school believed the same thing that I did. And I was even bullied in classes at church. My teachers, both at school and church, turned a blind eye most of the time. And when I spoke with my parents about it, their reply was to "turn the other cheek" and to "ignore it". Because what those other children said didn't matter in the big scheme of things. I can agree with them now, but being 8 years old, that was my whole world. I stuck with it, though, and listened and learned. I knew I was smart, and nobody could take that away from me. I often made better friends with older kids and even adults rather than my peers, and this stands true even today. I made it through, and gradually, I learned not to speak my mind. The bullying ceased, very slowly, and they moved on to other 

I turned 12 in 2002, and was eligible to be ordained to the "office" of Deacon in the church. Which basically meant that I passed the sacrament (communion) plates during the meeting and gathered fast offerings, often called "fast packs". The LDS church encourages it's members to fast the first Sunday of every month. It tells it's members to donate the money that they would have spent on their meals to them directly and it will go in the bishop's storehouse. That's where the deacon's come in. It works sort of like a reverse paper route. Going door to door, we would collect money from both "active" and "inactive" members. To me, this was a waste of time, and very uncomfortable. I wasn't a natural born salesman. I understood why the church told me to go, because the money was used as a charity effort to those in need. But why not have all members just mail their fast offerings with their tithing once per month?

Turning 12 also meant that I gained the Aaronic Priesthood. The name is derived from the brother of Moses, named Aaron, who was able to perform miracles using god's power. Mormons believe that the priesthood is literally the power of god given to man.

At any rate, I continued to follow the process, with a firm belief that I was doing what god wanted. I moved upward from elementary school to junior high. This is where my mind was opened to diversity in belief. And this is where I learned that hardly anything is truly black and white. I had begun to make friends with my peers, and I truly felt accepted. My voice was easier to find, compared to elementary school. I could make connections with people from all demographics. These years were key moments for how I currently believe.

At age 14, I was ordained to the office of a Teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood. This meant that I was now able to prepare the sacrament (fill the water cups and break the Wonderbread), and I was expected to visit a selected group of people with a mentor door to door. This is commonly referred to as Visiting Teaching or Home Teaching. We would prepare a half hour lesson, and check on the family situation to see how they were doing. We did this in lieu of the bishop, because there were so many families within the ward and the bishop would be overwhelmed if he had to visit each family once per month. There were only three or four families we visited, and the majority of them were LDS. There was one family, however, that did not believe in the LDS faith. And they were gracious enough to let us into their home and chat with them. As I said before, I am no salesman. It made me uncomfortable as a Deacon, but to proactively enter someone's home and teach them something that they may or may not have been comfortable with was a step beyond my limits. But I endured, eventually becoming desensitized to my own discomfort.

It happens to every teenager at some point, and Mormon teenagers are no different from the rest. I entered my pubescence, and and began to explore my interest in girls. I loved the attention, and I was hormonally charged between age 14 and 18. But my feelings conflicted constantly with what I was being told by church leaders. To compensate, I had turned to other means to fulfill a desire that I could not completely control. Even then, I was in the wrong according to church leaders. But I could justify choosing a "lesser of two evils" rather than giving into my first initial human instinct. I can only dance around this subject so much, so I hope you get at least some picture of my meaning. Saddest of all is that every normal teenager that wasn't LDS was able to choose without an ounce of guilt either way. And I was ridden with guilt even just thinking about sex. The chasm between me and my belief began to grow a little wider.

A year later, my parents paid for my brother and I to go on a trip to Montana for a week-long camp called 
Especially For Youth (EFY). This is similar to Vacation Bible School or "Jesus Camp", as some call it. The emotion driven by the counselors at EFY was intense. It made us young adults feel at an all-time spiritual high. This is similar to what I've seen from experiences of young Evangelical Christian children at their camps, but Mormons are more quietly reserved. I find it ironic that we went. Because that the weekend before our departure, we had gone to a party at my older brother's house. He was having issues with his LDS faith at this time, and we were permitted to partake in refreshments, which were mainly alcoholic. I can truly say that this was the time where I noticed the gap developing between my faith and my reason. Things didn't make sense. I was being told one thing and doing another. And the entire time, I felt miserable about myself.

Mormon friends of mine reasoned that I felt that way because of satanic influence. But I cannot, nor do I choose to, agree with this. Who are these people to be telling me what was influencing me? Half of these people had their own skeletons in their closets, as well. The conclusion I came to was that the whole LDS church is built upon people ruling people. The explanation that I have come up with has to do precisely with a conflict of natural and unnatural feelings. The natural being my yearning to explore the world around me and to decide for myself, save for those things that are completely irrational like murder or other crimes against man. After all, it's my body and mind. I have my right as a human being to make those decisions. The unnatural would be the emotion provoked from others that I should feel guilty about what I thought and felt. To this day, I still have a hard time thinking my own way. And the cause is more than likely influenced by LDS dogma.

EFY was a fast week for me. We made a lot of friends, and had a good time. I won’t deny that. But the most interesting part about EFY was that counselors would often comment that I had a lot of insightful and intelligent comments. I could pick out verses from the Bible and Book of Mormon and provide meanings behind them, a few explanations were even better than the counselors gave. People could argue that I was full of “the spirit” and that I was given a gift from god that he wanted me to develop. As complimentary as that sounds, it was degrading. It brought me to believe that what I had wasn’t my own. And that god, at any moment, could take it from me in an instant if he wanted.

I came back from EFY, full of an emotion that I knew very well. It was excitement and determination to prove myself better than my human instincts. Mormons often identify this with “the spirit”, referring to the Holy Ghost, Jesus Christ, or Elohim himself. Days wore on, and as I went about continuing my routine with the church, the void grew deeper and wider. I turned sixteen, and I didn’t have my license yet. Mostly due to a deal I made with my parents. If my grades were above a 3.0, I could drive. I graduated with a 2.9, but I got my license anyway when I turned 17.

At 16, I moved up another rank in the church, this time to the office of a Priest. This is the highest rank in the Aaronic Priesthood. I had the responsibilities of blessing the sacrament, using a scripted sacrament prayer. I also think I had the power to cast out demons. The ranking is slightly confusing, but the bishop over the church was considered an Aaronic Priesthood office, as well.

I had a girlfriend at this point, and we had been dating about a year or so. Steady dating is often frowned upon by “the church” because it can lead to familiarity with one girl. And that, combined with the natural instinct of teenage years can be a catalyst for teen pregnancy. But, at this point, I had become somewhat dulled to the words that were repeated to me by my church leaders. Even after a year, though, I had never gone as far as LDS church leaders often warn against. But she insisted that I confess to a bishop about things we had done, however minor in the grand scheme. She said that she felt guilty, and had confessed to her bishop already.

I felt that this was ridiculous. First off, because we hadn’t done anything that could merit confession. Some minor kissing sessions were really all that we had done. Secondly, I would be telling a 35 year old man about semi-sexual contact that he didn’t need to know. It’s for bad behavior on behalf of the bishop. Mainly because you have a young man or woman, face to face, describing in explicit detail the embarrassing actions that were performed. This is an effective tool to get people to think about consequences, but it is degrading and demoralizing; whether it is to a Mormon bishop or to a Catholic priest.

Not long after, we ended the relationship. She went off to marry a returned missionary, and I stayed in high school. (I neglected to mention that she was a full 2 years older than me). The following 2 years were spent dating various people of different backgrounds. Even though the selection pool was not extremely diverse, there were a few people that were of a different faith or of no faith at all.

At 19 years old, all Mormon men are expected to “serve” an LDS mission. They go out and recruit members from all over the world. Seeing as how this time was coming closing in very quickly on me, I was put under tremendous pressure to graduate seminary so that I could serve in a good place for my mission. I had pressure from family, which pushed me gently from the church. It was as if they had caught a scent of how I was feeling about my own faith, because, very abruptly, the comments moved from supportive toward my “testimony of the gospel” to deprecating my personal thoughts and attempting to block off any attempt at rational discussion. The Mormon god was true, and that was the end of discussion for them.

I could argue that it wasn’t anyone’s business that they should put me under so much scrutiny. The Book of Mormon says that “men are free to choose”. But I was devastated. This was all I knew from the time I was born. And I was given the impression that, should I choose against their belief or will, I would be given hell until I conformed.

I met my wonderful wife during this phase of my life (no rhyme scheme intended). She is agnostic, and provided me with greatly needed support during this crucial time. I spent a lot of nights debating in my mind what was correct. I couldn’t reach an answer. I prayed, fasted, paid tithing; everything that they said to do. But I didn’t receive anything. No feelings of excitement or joy. No visions of grandeur. Just sorrow and pain, and a looming feeling that I couldn’t please anyone; all, except for my spouse.

I remember a discussion we had one night. I still had a fairly strong belief in the church, even though I wasn’t completely sure about what I believed about the church. We were driving and talking about religion, a very dangerous subject, and especially for a new couple. But the more we discussed, the more I realized how much we agreed. In discussing, we had reached the same conclusions. And it was then that I realized two major turning points in my life. I loved her, and I did not want to be part of the LDS church anymore.

I almost didn’t graduate from LDS seminary my senior year, but I managed to scrape by due to peer pressure from my family. I was just glad they didn’t ask me to come up to the podium to bear my testimony at the graduation ceremony. I probably would’ve declined in front of the majority of my graduating class in secular high school. (If you haven’t gathered, the majority of the people at my high school were Mormon. Consider the anecdote again.)

High school was over. Things were looking up. I now got paid for the 8 hours a day that I spent working, which was an incredible feeling. Freedom to choose in a secular world was something I treasured. And something that church leaders, coincidentally, warned against.

The pressure from family members became to the point of unbearable some days. I asked my wife to marry me in late November of 2008. Of course, she said yes. We told her parents with great delight. But I knew that telling my parents was not going to go well. Upon telling my mother I was engaged, the first words out of her mouth were “What are you going to teach your children?” I dealt with it. Again, turning the other cheek and letting it slide by.

Days came and went. And I stopped going to church. I stopped doing my monthly duties of Home Teaching. I slowly drifted apart. I wanted this. One day, the bishop and my priesthood leader came to the house, and asked if they could come in. I was setup. My family was in control of the house. If I indicated I didn’t want them to speak to me, I would’ve been severely punished, even being a legal adult. I was asked the most difficult questions of my life by these two men; all the while, my family watching very closely. So, I did what any natural man under pressure would’ve done. I lied. I told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

After that, I stayed at my house a lot less. Family dinners for me were a rarity. I had made a conscious decision to never ever allow myself that kind of pressure again. My family just casually tossed snide comments to me anytime I showed my face. But my goal was clear. I needed to leave the suffocating predicament. The wedding was coming soon, and my family did everything they could to put a wedge in my relationship. Even so far as telling her lies about things I had said. These were the darkest days of my life. I spent so many nights pained with the thought of the people I trusted so much turning on me so easily.

The wedding came, though. I wasn’t going to allow them to stop me. After we got back from our honeymoon, though, the drama still continued. They sent emails, calls, and texts, still trying to drive us apart. The pressure was too great. My wife and I were at a breaking point. So I cut off contact with them.
About six months later, I sent my formal resignation to the church offices in Salt Lake City. This was my birthday present to myself. The church replied that it was an ecclesiastical matter, and that I would need to attend a church disciplinary council. I remember thinking it would be a cold day in hell before I do. Missionaries came by once or twice, but I had spoken my peace to them, and they stopped knocking.

To this day, I still have limited contact with my mother. But the things they said and did were unbearable. I will probably never speak to them again. But I am happy. I am so incredibly happy. My in-laws are wonderful. And my marriage is strong. I will never regret my decision to leave the church. I am so much more open and empowered now. I can choose what I wish, without boundaries. And I love my life.

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